Puerto Rico is at a political, economic, social, and agricultural crossroads. Exciting things can happen at crossroads.

The island’s $73 billion debt trumps Detroit’s ($18bn) but bankruptcy is not an option.

Already high taxes have increased and massive budget cuts have been proposed to education, agriculture, and other public services. Protests and demonstrations are common.

Many people are simply leaving (to the tune of 50,000 people a year). NPR has a nice write-up of some of the complexities.

Grafiti art on University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez campus
Graffiti art on University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez campus.

In hand with Puerto Rico’s debt is an increase in obesity, especially among low-income families.

I’ve run across a lot of statistics but actual studies seem hard to find beyond the CDC website. The bottom line is, as it is in many places, it’s cheaper and easier to eat out.

Which brings us to the trifecta. Food. In the 1950’s agriculture comprised ~80% of Puerto Rico’s land cover. Today, it’s less than 20%. This means that most fresh produce found at the local grocery store is, well, not so fresh and not so local.

A dependence on imported food has major implications for food security and well-being.

Crisis often finds creativity, however, and we are slowly seeing a strengthening of the agricultural sector. Products del pais are not only tastier but also support a bottom-up economy.

Plant communities in supermercados are a mix of local and imported species.
Plant communities in supermercados are a mix of local and imported species.

So if you’re in Puerto Rico, where can you find the highest diversity of local plant species?

I asked my Ecology course this question in the context of land use and ecological surveys and the seeming dichotomy between agriculture and forest cover.

Andrea Manzano, an undergraduate in the course, conducted a detailed study by sampling grocery stores in Western Puerto Rico.

She included both small businesses (colmados and Plazas del Mercado) and large grocery store chains.

Andrea surveyed all fresh plant products available and recorded their origin. Even though plant populations in grocery stores are dynamic, these data likely represent typical conditions in grocery stores across Puerto Rico.

Three Interesting Patterns:

1. Small businesses tend to have fewer plant species. However, small businesses support more locally grown produce.

Small business Puerto Rico

2. Rincon, a small town on the west coast, ranks high on the availability of locally grown plant products.

3. The majority of species are imported from the Americas. Others like onions, kiwi, garlic, ginger, and tamarind travel much longer distances before arriving at the grocery store. (Food art: CreativeCommons).

Andrea’s work highlights the growing demand and need for local produce. For more details check out the Department of Agriculture (Departamento de Agricultura).


Thanks to Andrea for letting me highlight her work that  she presented at the Undergraduate Research Symposium at UPRM. Exito!